Nearly 25 percent of companies who responded in a recent survey said that some degree of bullying had occurred in the previous 12 months

Niosh study sheds light on bullying and workplace stress: nearly 25 percent of companies who responded in a recent survey said that some degree of bullying had occurred in the previous 12 months

Nancy Grover

Employers’ efforts to improve relationships among co-workers could reduce their workers’ compensation costs, a new study suggests. Preliminary results indicate bullying between workers is more prevalent than intimidation by supervisors or customers. The findings could lead to preventive measures to reduce workplace stress.

While experts don’t know the exact number of cases, they say workplace bullying victims sometimes choose workers’ comp as a way out of an uncomfortable situation. “There is no doubt that a negative and hostile employer atmosphere drives up the duration and cost of workers’ comp claims,” said Richard Pimentel, a workers’ comp consultant. “Bullying in the workplace happens four times more frequently than illegal discriminatory harassment, yet less than 10 percent of companies have a policy to address it.” Pimentel is studying the issue of workplace bullying and will present his findings at the LRP’s 13th Annual Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference[R] & Expo, Nov. 17-19 in Chicago.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health surveyed more than 500 key respondents at private and public organizations about workplace bullying. The respondents included human resources professionals or others who were knowledgeable about their organizations. It was part of the NIOSH’s research to identify factors associated with work-related stress and to recommend practical interventions. The organizations ranged in size from five employees to 20,000 employees. Bullying was defined as repeated intimidation, slandering, social isolation or humiliation by one or more persons against another.

NIOSH said its survey revealed the following data:

* Nearly one in four companies reported that some degree of bullying had occurred during the preceding year.

* In the most recent bullying incident the companies cited, 39.2 percent involved an employee as the aggressor, 24.5 percent involved a customer, and 14.7 percent involved a supervisor.

* In the most recent incident, more than half–55.2 percent–involved the employee as the victim, 10.5 percent had the customer as the target, while 7.7 percent reported the supervisor was the victim.

The researchers said employers’ efforts to prevent bullying should include steps to improve co-worker relationships and not strictly focus on improving supervisor-employee and customer-employee relationships. NIOSH said the study points to the need for further research to support its initial findings before definitive recommendations could be made to prevent bullying as a potential factor for work-related stress.

Stress is often cited as a cause of workers’ comp injuries, although states vary in how and whether they award benefits for these eases. Some states, for example, require a physical ailment to accompany the stress before benefits can be paid.

The NIOSH job stress research program aims to better understand the influence of what are commonly termed work organization or psychosocial factors on stress, illness and injury. It also seeks ways to redesign jobs to create safer and healthier workplaces.

In addition to workplace bullying, NIOSH is also researching the following as part of its job stress program: Characteristics of healthy work organizations, work organization interventions to promote safe and healthy working conditions, surveillance of the changing nature of work, work organization interventions to reduce musculoskeletal disorders among office operators, work schedule designs to protect the health and well-being of workers, the effect of new organizational policies and practices on worker health and safety, changing worker demographics–race/ethnicity, gender, and age–and worker safety and health, work organization, cardiovascular disease and depression, psychological violence in the workplace, the interplay between workplace psychosocial and musculoskeletal risk factors.

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